Staying on the defensive side of the ball with our position-by-position look through the USC roster at what was expected and delivered in the 2020 season, as well as what comes next, we move to the linebackers.
What was expected
Jordan Iosefa and Solomon Tuliaupupu would return from injuries that kept them out the entire 2019 season and battle for starting spots in the middle with Palaie Gaoteote and Kana’i Mauga. Ralen Goforth would take another step forward in his second season, but with Todd Orlando coaching this position and it serving as an important piece of his defensive scheme, the veteran presence here would be a big boost for the Trojans.
There was slightly less certainty at outside linebacker. Drake Jackson did more than enough to prove himself as a true freshman, but what would the move to outside linebacker do to his production and ability to make an impact as a pass rusher? Fellow outside linebacker Hunter Echols had shown some flashes during his career, and both Juliano Falaniko and Eli’jah Winston would be counted on to at least serve on special teams if not start to push for more playing time on defense.
A lot of quarterback pressure comes from the second and third levels of the defense under Orlando, as those players are blitzed often and asked to make tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. It looked as though USC’s fairly loaded linebacking corps would be up to the challenge as a number of players appeared poised to make an impact.
What was delivered
Iosefa and Tuliaupupu suffered season-ending injuries before spring ball began. Gaoteote entered concussion protocol during the second game of the season, never returned to the field and eventually entered the transfer portal. Winston wasn’t available for the entire season and Falaniko played in just one game at the end of the year.
All of that left just Mauga and Goforth available at the two inside linebacker spots, though they needed a bit of a boost from Raymond Scott, who slid down from his safety position, when Goforth missed a game due to injury.
Mauga and Goforth played solidly in the middle, but the Trojans are still a ways away from the dominant linebacker play USC has put on the field in the past. Mauga finished second on the team with 41 tackles and had a nice interception against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Goforth finished with 38 tackles and three pass deflections. Both had three tackles for loss.
The best linebacker play of the season likely came from Talanoa Hufanga, who manned the position when USC put six defensive backs on the field for long stretches against Washington State.
Jackson had an up-and-down season at outside linebacker. He made some spectacular plays, including an interception while dropped back in coverage against Utah, a phenomenal pass rush to force an incompletion and complete the comeback win against Arizona State, and a terrific sack after a spin move against Arizona. But he also seemed quiet for long stretches and finished tied for 10th on the team with 20 tackles, and tied for third on the team with just two sacks. Of course, part of that can be explained by offenses keying on Jackson, which partially accounts for the breakout years that other USC defensive linemen were able to enjoy.
The Trojans need to find another level of performance at linebacker if this defense is going to establish itself as the best in the conference. Orlando has taken responsibility for needing to elevate the play here and it’s a good bet that will happen if given a full offseason and spring ball to work.
Iosefa and Tuliaupupu are eligible to return to the team, so it will be interesting to see if the Trojans can get anything out of them. Both would help the defensive immensely if they are at full health, but even being able to get through a handful of practices would at least be an emotional lift.
Head coach Clay Helton has said the door is open for Gaoteote to return, but that seems unlikely at this point, especially after his younger brother, a longtime USC commit in the 2021 class, signed with Michigan State.
USC will get Mauga and Goforth back in the middle, and those two will likely head into spring ball as the presumed starters. Tuasivi Nomura has gotten some experience the last two days, so it’s worth watching to see if he can become a bigger part of the two-deep there.
On the outside, Jackson will be interesting to watch this season. Orlando was flying a little bit blind this past season as he’d been able to watch Jackson on tape, but without a spring ball and with Jackson sidelined by a hamstring injury for a big part of fall camp, Orlando likely wasn’t able to get a real sense of his sophomore standout until the games began. With a year together now, Jackson might be more likely to take a bigger step forward heading into his third season.
It will also be interesting to see how incoming freshman Korey Foreman is utilized. He can play defensive end, but he’s also athletic enough to play the same hybrid position Jackson played this past season. With Jackson, Foreman and Echols there, Orlando has the ability to do some interesting things on the outside. Foreman, the nation’s No. 1 recruit, will see the field extensively as a true freshman.
Winston and Falaniko would give the Trojans some experience either outside or inside, and Tayler Katoa could add to that depth as well. He spent this season working his way back after returning from a mission. He did not play in a game, but Helton said he could eventually contribute.
USC didn’t sign any linebackers in the 2020 class, but there is already a good one headed to USC in the 2021 class in Julien Simon. The four-star athlete could probably play inside linebacker, outside linebacker, safety, wide receiver or running back in college, so it will be interesting to see where he starts his career. He was recruited as an inside linebacker, but there is some Talanoa Hufanga in his game, so Orlando could dial up something of a hybrid safety/linebacker spot for him.
The Trojans could also land linebacker Raesjon Davis in finishing out this 2021 recruiting class. While he doesn’t have the prototypical inside linebacker size, but he’s an instinctive, physical player who will absolutely hit the ground running and likely push himself into the two-deep somewhere as a true freshman.